22 Oct 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 3, §115 To know completely the antecedents and conditions...

by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. My commentary is in brackets.]

Henri Bergson

Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience

Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness

Chapter III. "The Organization of Conscious States. Free Will."
Chapitre III. "De l'organisation des états de conscience : la liberté."

Part LII: Real Duration and Prediction
"La durée réelle et la contingence"

§115 To know completely the antecedents and conditions of an action is to be actually performing it.

Previously Bergson described the determinist claim: if we have perfect knowledge of a person, we can predict her behavior.

We begin with an example: Peter & Paul.

Peter will make "a seemingly free decision under serious circumstances" (184d). Paul is a philosopher who knows "all the conditions under which Peter acts" (185a). Will Paul be able to foretell Peter's decisions?

It is possible for us to picture the mental condition of a person at any given moment. Consider for example when we are reading a novel and trying to understand what is going-on in the main character's mind. The author might use extraordinary detail or telling-events to get us inside her mind. Nonetheless, our understanding will change with each new thing that we learn about her. And we will continue learning up-to the end. Let's suppose that by the final fact we know everything. But then the story is over. So there are no more actions to predict.

Consider when we commit free acts. While doing so, we also had a state-of-mind. That mindset expressed itself in our action. Our "deeper psychic state," then, 'translated' into our free act. Now, if anything in our past was just slightly different, the chain of development leading up-to our current mindset would also be different. That means our deeper psychic states express our whole past history.

In our example, Paul knows every detail of Peter's life. When Paul contemplates this history, he reconstructs and in fact even 'lives' it all over again in his imagination.

Bergson will now distinguish two ways we may know the mental life of other people.

Consider this: we feel the intensity of our psychic states and their importance to other ones. We do not measure these states in any way. But, when we try to convey the intensity of our states to someone else, we have to use some sort of measure of its importance by comparing it with the previous and following states. But while we experienced the state, its intensity was given to us "as an inexpressble quality of the state itself" (186). Intensities, we have noted, are qualitative and not quantitative [see Chapter 1].

So this first way of "assimulating the conscious states of other people" is dynamic. We experience the same states ourselves.

The other way is static. We contemplate instead the image, intellectual symbol, or idea of the conscious state, without actually experiencing it. Hence we would imagine the conscious-states rather than reproduce them. And for that reason, we do not actually feel the intensity of the psychic state. We will have to add some indication of the intensity level: it will feel as though it has more or less strength than another feeling, and it will play a greater-or-lesser role in the whole of one's history. [Now consider our expample. We are reading a novel. I propose we deal with a very simple story instead: Aesop's "Fox and the Grapes." A thirsty fox happens upon grapes dangling just out-of-reach. Nonetheless, the fox jumps-and-jumps for them, but with no success. Finally he walks-off, concluding that they were sour all along. At the end we learn that the fox was a quitter. The story could-have-been different. He could-have found some more clever way to get them, perhaps by tricking a bird, as we might expect from these fables. But he does not. Yet, note how first he made the effort, and then came to a conclusion which would make you think that he originally never had cause to jump so much. Why would he jump for something sour? I offer this: the fox himself knew neither the sweetness of the grapes, nor the limits of his physical abilities, nor the strength of his tenacity. The fox did not even know his own self. He felt it. But in that instant of trying for the grapes, who he was, and what his body could do, were unknown, and in a sense not yet fully determined. Not even the fox knew explicitly what his own psychic state implied, until after the event. So in order to know that the fox would give-up, we would either have to have felt his experience at the instant before deciding, and thereby felt his strong tendency toward quitting. Or, we would need to know that in fact he would finally give-up. That would tell us enough about his character that we could go back and make the prediction. Yet it will not tell us what would happen in the next similar situation, because even then we would need to know the outcome again too.] Now, if we wanted to add some explicit indication of the intensity and importance of the psychic state, we would need to see its influence on the following instant. Otherwise its 'value' is indeterminate. [It's like the fox's final jump. We don't know it is final until his next decision of walking away.] So, to be able to predict the character's next action, we would either need to actually feel her mind or know the end of the story already (which makes it no longer a prediction.)

Paul must already know Peter's final act, and must thus be able to supplement his mental image of the successive states through which Peter is going to pass by some indication of their value in relation to the whole of Peter's history; or he must make up his mind to pass through these different states, not in imagination, but in reality. [187c]

Paul connaisse déjà l'acte final de Pierre, et puisse joindre ainsi, à l'image des états successifs par lesquels Pierre va passer, l'indication de leur valeur par rapport à l'ensemble de son histoire ; —ou qu'il se résigne à passer lui-même par ces états divers, non plus en imagination, mais en réalité. [143bc]

Now, we assumed at the beginning that we will base our predictions on knowledge of what precedes the current decision. Hence we cannot know the 'final act.' Instead, Paul is "an actor who plays Peter's part in advance" (187d).

Does Paul need to experience every detail of Peter's life? If he skipped certain parts, that would only be allowable if he knew in advance that they would have no bearing on the coming decision that Paul is trying to predict. But the only way to know that is if Paul already knows what that coming decision is, even before making his prediction of it. Since we are supposing he has no foreknowledge of that coming decision, then he must live every detail of Peter's life up-to that point to be sure he is not missing any relevant information.

Neither have you the right to cut short were it only by a second the different states of consciousness through which Paul is going to pass before Peter; for the effects of the same feeling, for example, go on accumulating at every moment of duration, and the sum total of these effects could not be realized all at once unless one knew the importance of the feeling, taken in its totality, in relation to the final act, which is the very thing that is supposed to remain unknown. [188a]

Vous n'avez pas non plus le droit d'abréger, — fût-ce d’une seconde, — les divers états de conscience par lesquels Paul va passer avant Pierre; car les effets du même sentiment, par exemple, s'ajoutent et se renforcent à tous les moments de la durée, et la somme de ces effets ne pourrait être éprouvée tout d'un coup que si l'on connaissait l'importance du sentiment, pris dans son ensemble, par rapport à l'acte final, lequel demeure précisément dans l'ombre. [143-144]

But then, how could Paul live every detail of Peter's life without also sharing his body and living at the exact same time as Peter? If we suppose that these conditions are met, then how can we distinguish Peter from Paul in the first place? And also, if Paul lived every detail of Peter's life all the way to this present decision under consideration, then Paul is no longer predicting Peter's behavior, as much as he is in fact conducting that decision himself: "you thus reached the very moment when, the action taking place, there was no longer anything to be foreseen, but only something to be done" (188-189).

Images from the English translation [click for an enlargement]:

Images from the original French [click for an enlargement]:

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, Transl. F. L. Pogson, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001).

Available online at:


French text from:

Bergson, Henri. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience. Originally published Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France, 1888.

Available online at:


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